Jen Ellis sat on a broken office chair surrounded by debris and tents in a space mostly hidden by trees and overgrown foliage.
The 39-year-old woman was among dozens of homeless people who have taken shelter in an encampment north of downtown Omaha in recent months. And she is now one of the dozens wondering what to do next.
The encampment has in recent weeks become a source of contention as Omaha police cleared people out of the area after receiving complaints from nearby businesses and homeowners. Omaha Police Capt. Keith Williamson wants the property’s owner, Union Pacific, to take steps to deter its use by homeless people by clearing out overgrown brush and installing lights.
But some advocates say the clearing of the camp won’t solve the underlying issues leading to homelessness, nor will it help the individuals from being displaced to other locations in the city.
Over the years, Omaha police have seen encampments pop up on the property, which spans multiple blocks beyond a thicket of brush and trees east of 16th Street and south of Locust Street.
“I think it’s been a good three or four years since we’ve had a big problem there,” Williamson said. “(The number of people) ebbs and flows. If the property gets overgrown, which happens on railroad property, people go in there and think, ‘I can set up, I can hide in here.’"
Ellis, whose first stay at the encampment was in 2016, said people decide to go there for numerous reasons. For her, it was a last resort after she said she was banned from the Siena Francis House in early spring after being accused of having a weapon, which she disputes.
“My ultimate goal was to move on, because the ultimate goal should be to find us housing,” Ellis said on a sunny afternoon in late September. “That’s what the emphasis should be on, not about taking some stand over property that no one should really be on anyway.”
Located just blocks from the encampment, Siena Francis is one of four shelters in Omaha. It provides emergency shelter, food and clothing to individuals experiencing homelessness and allows in people under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. The agency rarely bars or bans individuals from its facilities, a spokesperson said, and when it does, it is typically for a short period of time.
“It is not uncommon for our staff to encounter — or to hear about — individuals who report that they are banned and barred when, in fact, that is not the case,” the spokesperson said.
It’s not unusual for encampments to pop up close to places where services such as food, bathrooms and laundry facilities are available, said Randy McCoy, executive director of the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless (MACCH). They can also attract people who feel unsafe in a shelter or other programs.
“Sometimes there’s past trauma in their lives where staying outside might be a better arrangement for them than staying in a shelter or being around that many people,” McCoy said. “Being able to sleep alone as compared to a dormitory.”
At its peak between March and October, the encampment on the Union Pacific property had a population of more than 30 people staying there full time, according to Nick O’Connell and David Carney, members of a community outreach group known as Omaha Autonomous.
The group has regularly provided aid to the people in the encampment since March. They have seen a majority of the camp clear out in recent weeks.
“Most people left out of safety concerns after the police sweeps,” O’Connell said. “For most of the summer, there was little police interaction.”
Law enforcement started taking a more active role at the site in response to complaints from neighboring businesses and homeowners, according to Williamson.
Omaha police made four or five official checks of the property between late September and mid-October, and officers drive by daily to see if foot traffic is going in and out of the area, Williamson said.
Six people have been arrested in that time frame, which included four felony warrants. Three of those felony warrants were because a convicted sex offender failed to register their address, Williamson said.
The area is registered as “closed property” under a city ordinance, which allows police to respond to trespassers on the property.
Ellis in early October said that she saw multiple people cited and released by police, a move she criticized.
“Most of us here have no viable monthly income, so we’re dependent upon donations and the good will of other people’s hearts,” Ellis said. “The assumption is people are either going to pay or that citation becomes a warrant because people weren’t able to make that date, then they go around and make arrests.”
Asked how many citations had been issued, Williamson said he was unsure of the number and that homeless parties aren’t often cited by police.
“Normally, the decision to cite or book is based on a variety of reasons, including our policy, the offense, criminal history of the suspect, whether the problem will continue once officers leave and the cooperation between the offender and the officer,” Williamson said.
After police received multiple complaints about the encampment, Williamson said he contacted Union Pacific, which has its own police department with certified state law enforcement officers. He asked that the railroad company take steps such as installing lights, clearing trees or even bulldozing some of the land to make it less appealing to homeless people.
“We’re happy to help, don’t get me wrong, but you need to take these next steps and you need to do these actions to help out the neighbors and everyone else,” Williamson said. “You’ve got your own police department and we’ll help you, but ultimately it’s no different than with anyone else. This is your property, you need to secure it.”
Union Pacific spokeswoman Robynn Tysver said in an emailed statement that the company “is concerned about the people who are illegally setting up encampments on our property, which is marked as private property.”
“We work closely with the Omaha Police Department to help those individuals find safer alternatives and remove trash left behind,” Tysver said. “However, it’s a challenging situation. People often return and some treat the area as a dump site, making it difficult for Union Pacific to mitigate the issue.”
Williamson said he has seen complaints about the encampment ebb following the arrests and clearing of the camp.
Most of the complaints were about trash, public drinking, public urination or defecation, open burning, public sex acts and criminal activity such as theft, fights, aggressive panhandling and lewd conduct, Williamson said.
Advocates contend that clearing the camp is not a solution to homelessness in the community.
“All the sweep did was push people away from a place they had made their home,” Carney said on behalf of Omaha Autonomous. “The only thing that has changed is now folks are heading into winter without any sense of security further from the resources they need access to.”
Omaha Autonomous has kept in contact with several of the people displaced from the camp. The group said that in the weeks following the clear-out, it hasn’t seen any effort by Union Pacific, the city or police to clean up the property.
O’Connell and Carney said they would like to see more avenues to attainable housing, noting a man they often ran into at the encampment who has been on a housing wait list for three years.
“We seem to lack the ability to put people into housing quickly and effectively,” O’Connell said.
Shortening the list is something McCoy would like to see, as well.
McCoy estimates that about 900 people are on the list on any given day, waiting for housing in Douglas, Sarpy and Pottawattamie Counties, and of those 300 to 400 are chronically homeless.
“If there was not one new person added to the list, it would take us nearly a year just to get housing opportunities for everybody who was on the list that first day,” McCoy said.
The solution, he said, is more affordable housing, more property owners willing to work with individuals who are exiting homelessness, longer-term assistance to help people pay rent and an understanding that homelessness can affect everyone in a community.
He also stressed the difference between affordable housing and “housing that is affordable.”
“An affordable rent for somebody who’s making $45,000 a year could be $800 a month,” McCoy said. “For someone who’s on a fixed income and their total income is $800 a month, an affordable housing unit that is $800 a month is still not affordable.”
There’s also the cold reality of winter months quickly approaching, said Naomi Hattaway, a recent Omaha City Council candidate with years of experience in homelessness prevention.
As the deadly cold blew into the metro area last winter, Hattaway led an effort to provide noncongregate shelter to people seeking a safe space during the onslaught of the pandemic.
With CARES Act funds allocated by the City of Omaha, separate rooms were found at area hotels for those especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
“That program has since ended, but as winter comes around again, we’re gearing up for Round 2 of what that might look like for this coming winter,” Hattaway said.
In its annual count, the Metro Area Continuum of Care found that 1,405 people in Omaha and Council Bluffs were homeless on Jan. 22. Included in that number is Ellis, who, like many who had set up camp on the U.P. property, has moved to another location in Omaha.
The need for housing services in the Omaha area was underlined by the pandemic, McCoy said.
He pointed to the City of Omaha’s emergency rental assistance program. Between April 1 and the end of September, more than $23 million has been given to rental and utility assistance through the program.
MACCH is still seeing between 200 and 300 people begin the application process for the program each week, McCoy said.
“That need has always existed in the community, but because the funds that were available for rental assistance were so small before the pandemic, the magnitude was kind of a mystery,” McCoy said. “It’s shown that this is a much bigger problem than we ever expected.”
Moving forward, Hattaway said it will be important to redefine homelessness and who is at risk of becoming homeless.
“During the pandemic, we saw people who would never consider themselves to be at risk find themselves facing a crisis,” Hattaway said. “I think we’re going to have to be even broader in how we address homelessness prevention and housing insecurity in the future.”
World-Herald photographer Anna Reed contributed to this report.